How should a church govern itself?
I never put much thought into this until I moved from a congregationalist church to an elder-ruled church. To put it in the simplest of terms, in an elder-ruled church, the elders hold the highest authority in the church, while in a congregationalist church, members have authority in certain decisions that even the elders must submit to. This is of course all relative to the ultimate authority of Christ, as the head of the church. I know there are other models of church government (Episcopalian, Presbyterian, etc.) but my focus will be on congregationalism and the elder-rule model, both of which are independent church models with a plurality of elders (or at least they should be). I will also focus on the issue of authority within these two models.
Is one polity more biblical than the other?
In my study, it appears that both models of church government are biblically informed, and both have important similarities. For example, both models say elders should lead the church, and members should submit to their teachings and recommendations (Heb. 13:17). But I think congregationalism is the more biblical model, and it allows church members to experience and understand the gospel in ways the elder-rule model does not. I think the difference depends on who is authorized to do what.
The authority of elders in the elder-ruled model is primarily based on examples in the early church as described in the New Testament. This model teaches the elders have the authority to manage the church’s membership as Paul excommunicated an unrepentant sinner in 1 Cor. 5:3-5, or as Titus rejected a sinner in Titus 3:10-11. Some say “the church” in Matt. 18:17 refers to the council of elders as representatives of the entire church. If that’s the case, that would be a clear instruction for the elders to exercise final authority over removing a member. They also believe elders have the authority to appoint elders as Paul and Barnabas did in Acts 14:23, as was done to Timothy in 1 Tim. 4:14, and just as Titus was directed in Titus 1:5. Practically speaking, elders in an elder-ruled church have the responsibility and authority to decide who is a member of their church, and who isn’t, as well as who is an elder and who isn’t.
As a congregationalist, I believe the congregation as a whole, has the final say in their membership and eldership. In the following posts, I’ll go over the scriptures that lead me to that conclusion, but first I want to say why it even matters.
If elders have the final say in who the elders are and by extension, what gospel is being preached, and if elders have the final say in who is or isn’t member of the gospel community… what ministry is the congregation really entrusted with? If elders are supposed to equip the saints for the ministry, but have final authority over the main elements of ministry, who is really doing the ministry?
In Don’t Fire Your Church Members, Jonathan Leeman states:
When Jesus places the keys of the kingdom into the hands of the gathered congregation, he grants every member the ability to do his or her job. After all, possessing the responsibility to do something requires the authority to do it. (104)
To hand final rule of the church over to the elders fires Christians from the work that the Holy Spirit has equipped them to do and that Jesus has authorized them to do with the keys of the kingdom. (121)
Next, we will look at how authority was given in the first place.